Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 27: An expanding universe of expansions

Tom, Scott, and Paul discuss expansions. When is a game worth expanding? What kind of value should expansions provide -- More complexity? More of the same? A fix for a core game that didn't work? Plus, Tom reviews Elder Sign and two iOS board games, Loot And Scoot and Legion Of The Damned. (c) Tom Grant 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

At long last, the feeds are fixed

When we started I've Been Diced!, there was only one feed for both the podcast and the blog. While this approach kept things simple, it also meant that, over time, some of the older episodes of the podcast disappeared from iTunes. The more I posted to the blog, the more episodes disappeared from iTunes...

No longer. We now have two feeds, one for just the podcast, and one for the blog (including podcast episodes). The links to these feeds now appear on the right, under "IBD blog feed" and "IBD podcast feed."

Practically speaking, what does this mean?

  • If you're subscribed to the original feed, you're now getting the podcasts only.
  • If you want the blog entries, subscribe to the new feed.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 26: Colby Dauch, designer/publisher of Summoner Wars

Colby Dauch of Plaid Hat Games stops by to discuss Summoner Wars, his upcoming game Dungeon Run, the iOS version of Summoner Wars, Heroscape, and more. Plus, a Star Trek/Tales of the Arabian Nights hybrid is this week's Game Off The Beaten Track. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 25: Genres that do or don't work as boardgames

Summer blockbusters based on comic books are now the norm. Publishers release hundreds of new mystery novels every year. Westerns are still iconic parts of American popular culture. So why are there so few good games based on these genres, and so many better games based on medieval merchants, farmers, and castle builders? Plus, Tom recommends a few superhero games that succeed where others have failed.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 24: Jim Krohn, designer of Space Empires: 4X

Jim Krohn, designer of the just-published Space Empires: 4X, talks about the history of this game, plus some of the key design decisions that went into it. What started as a two-player monster game became something playable in a few hours. Plus, a new iPad game, King Of Dragon Pass, makes Tom nostalgic for one of his first board games. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 23: Why we wargame

Paul, Dave, and Tom discuss the distinct appeal of wargames. We play them for different reasons than other boardgames, and we judge them according to different standards. Plus, three classic wargames off the beaten track, and we discuss how Origins: How We Became Human can break your brain. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Back after a brief hiatus

While we've been keeping pace, podcast-wise, I haven't posted to the blog in a while. I've been on the road an insane amount, had other work responsibilities, and some family stuff that needed attention. So, not much time for blogging, but I hope to catch up soon. Meanwhile, we are staying on track for the podcast, so expect a new episode next week.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 22: Alan Emrich of Victory Point Games

Alan Emrich drops by to talk about designing games, publishing games, and teaching game design. What's his company, Victory Point Games, working on next? How do you teach game design? Is it harder to design a small game than a big one? What's the plan for getting VPG's titles onto mobile devices? Plus, the strange case of a game that deftly blends politics and war, A Line In The Sand, but didn't get the attention it deserved. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Monday, July 25, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 21: Arkham Horror

The stars are right for summoning our opinions about Arkham Horror. Why do we keep coming back to it, in spite of the insane amount of setup? Which expansions are worth getting? How should new players dive into Arkham Horror's murky depths? Plus, during our discussion of games we've played recently, Tom and Paul recount their return to ASL, via VASSAL. Verily. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 20: Brian Train on wargames about revolutionary and asymmetric warfare

Brian Train, wargame designer, joins us to discuss simulations of irregular warfare. How do insurgencies differ from conventional wars, and what's different about how you simulate them in wargames? We talk about many of Brian's published games on these topics, such as ¡Arriba España!, Battle for China, Shining Path, and Algeria, as well as his upcoming games. For more info on Brian and his games, visit http://islandnet.com/~ltmurnau/lilwars.htm. Copyright (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Monday, July 11, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 19: Magic Realm

We love Magic Realm, so why not spread the love? This episode, we give an overview of the game for new players, and we talk about what makes Magic Realm both unique and great. Later, Tom has Spain on the brain, so he gives a quick overview of wargames about the Spanish Civil War. Plus, an announcement about future episodes that will rock your world! Or just mildly perturb it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

LA Noire: Watch the silliness evaporate

This morning, I finished LA Noire. As some reviewers have said, the good parts are truly brilliant, and the bad parts are teeth-gnashingly awful. The good news is, the further you get into the game, the more the silliness evaporates. By the last few chapters, the game is tightly focused on the main plot, which is very well-written. Unless you don't like mysteries at all, it's worth wading through the muck to get to the conclusion. But man oh man, why so much muck? Why the endless car chases, foot chases, shoot-outs, and time-wasting non-clues?

How UX made me a Ticket To Ride player

After playing a few sessions of Ticket To Ride with friends, I lost interest. It struck me as an OK game, and I could understand why it had a strong fan base. However, given limited boardgaming opportunities, I happily let my copy go.

That was several years ago. Today, as a dedicated iPad user, I was mildly interested to see how well Days Of Wonder implemented Ticket To Ride for this medium. Now, in spite of my earlier diffidence to Ticket To Ride, I'm a regular player.

What changed? First, there's the lack of setup. Even with a simple game with relatively few components, the process of setting up and breaking it down factors into my interest in playing it. (One reason why I don't get Arkham Horror to the table that often.)

Second, there's the speed of play. Ticket To Ride played face to face took longer than I had hoped for the class of game it is. Playing Ticket To Ride on the iPad takes only about 15 minutes, even when played online against other people. Dealing with players suffering from analysis paralysis is much easier in the anonymous online world than when sitting across from the table, worried about how that player will react to urging to get along with it already.

Finally, there's mobility. On the couch, on the train, on the plane, I can jump into a game of Ticket To Ride whenever I feel a need to take a short mental break from my work.

In other words, the iPad version of Ticket To Ride has a completely different user experience (UX) than the boardgame. The rules are the same, but it's essentially a different game. Ditto for similar games, such as Carcassone, that I've revisited in their iPad incarnations.

Another interesting case is Joan Of Arc. Because of the subject matter, I've been intrigued, but never took the plunge because it seemed at risk of being another game that was too Euro-ish and too long. Many times longer, in fact, than Ticket To Ride, which would try the patience of my regular gaming group if it turned out to be less than stellar.

The iPad version is pretty good. I'm glad I bought it, both in and of itself as a game I enjoy playing on the iPad, but also as something I might consider buying, now that I have more experience with it.

That's a pattern I hope to see repeated with other games in general, and wargames in particular. The user experience of physical wargames may be too much for neophytes, interested in the history and gameplay, but not sure about the investment of time. Having played Washington's War on the iPad and enjoyed it, a newbie might then want to introduce a friend to the physical version. Learning how to play any iPad wargame would certainly help the new player understand wargame conventions in general, lowering the barrier of entry to the hobby in general.

Again, it all comes down to user experience. As I said in my earlier post, software often fails because the initial user experience is confusing and difficult. If eventual complexity is necessary, you need to provide some kind of simpler initial user experience that suggests where to go next, and the rewards for going there. That, by the way, is where many "gateway" games fail, for some players. While Memoir '44 might be easy to grasp, it's also not much of a simulation. The leap from Memoir '44 to Washington's War is a lot tougher than the transition from the iPad version of WW to its physical one would be. So, here's to companies like Shenandoah Studios, providing the initial user experience that may get more people playing wargames.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

User experience is more than mechanics

Boardgame fans are, by and large, a forgiving people. While emotions might run high sometimes, as they often do on public forums like Boardgame Geek and Consimworld, they often sound like lovers' tiffs. For instance, in last week's podcast, I got a bit worked up over the utter disregard that FFG shows for first-time players of Twilight Imperium, but I still love the game anyway.

People are a lot less likely to suffer the imperfections in other things. Software designers, for example, only recently admitted to themselves that (1) the average user really hates the average application, and (2) there's a harsh economic penalty (lost sales, wasted resources, etc.) for delivering software that is too difficult to figure out or use. Developers build applications for people unlike themselves, and boy, does it show.

As a result, concerns over user experience have skyrocketed in the last several years. In fact, if we roll back the clock a decade or two, the average programmer might not even have heard the phrase user experience. If they had, it might have been limited to trivia, such as where to put buttons in a dialog box, or how many menu items is too many.

User experience, in the sense that we now use the term, is a much bigger concept. What are the steps the user expects to take, in doing a task like entering an invoice or reviewing case files? How much does the actual experience of using the software match the expected experience? What are the details of the actual experience that matter to the user, and why?

User experience (abbreviated UX) is more than the sum of its parts. The positioning of buttons doesn't matter if the dialog box is incomprehensible. A well-designed dialog box is useless if the user can't find it. A highly accessible dialog box is worse than useless if it gets in the way of completing a task. Providing an easy path through one task has limited value if it takes 10 minutes to start using the application at all. A bad experience in some parts of the "application flow" will tarnish the user's perception of the other, better-designed parts.

Games can provide a bad user experience, too. The average gamer might have more personally invested in playing Dominion than using an airline ticketing application, so they're willing to put up with a bit more. However, their patience isn't bottomless.

Unfortunately, game designers don't usually think in terms of user experience. Instead, they craft a set of game mechanics, bundle them together, and declare the game to be finished. They use some rough measures of user experience, such as rules complexity or average playing time, but these are very incomplete measures, much as the number of clicks needed to finish a task is only a partial measure of user experience in software.

This rule applies as much to video games as boardgames. I'm nearing the end of LA Noire, and man alive, what a disappointing user experience it has provided. The parts that excel — the interesting mystery plots, the overarching story about the aftermath of WWII —  are buried in game mechanics that are irrelevant and irritating to people who enjoy mysteries or film noir. I had hoped to play the game with my wife, who's a big fan of both, but there's no way she would sit through the repetitive car chases, foot chases, and shoot-outs.

Is user experience a problem, if boardgamers are a forgiving bunch? Yes, for one big reason: staying power.

Boardgames that provide a poor user experience, or just the wrong one, lose market presence. After the initial enthusiasm for new games, only a few retain a strong following. In December 2008, Battlestar Galactica was played 1231 times, among players who record gaming sessions on Boardgame Geek. In June 2011, that number dropped to 531, which isn't bad for an older game. Ghost Stories, another popular game in 2008, dropped from 1121 plays to 353 in the same period.

You can't attribute Battlestar Galactica's success to the popularity of the TV show, since many if not most licensed games are miserable failures.  Marvel Comics may be responsible for two summer blockbuster movies, Thor and Captain America, but the Marvel Heroes boardgame has only 38 logged plays in June 2011 on Boardgame Geek. Battlestar Galactica continues to draw players because it delivers a good user experience, one part cooperation, one part "Who's the toaster?" paranoia — just what you'd expect from a game based on the TV show.

Although many of you might disagree, I don't think that Marvel Heroes was all that bad of a game. However, it didn't deliver the user experience players might have expected from a superhero game. (And it's hardly alone among games about that genre that don't feel like comic books. What's up with that?)

Soren Johnson, the designer of Civilization IV, identifies this potential disconnect in an excellent series of blog posts about the difference between theme (what the box says the game is about) and meaning (what playing the game is like). Meaning is a big part of user experience: Does Marvel Heroes feel like a comic book? Does Descent feel like a proper dungeon crawl? How well the game delivers this experience is just as important as other qualities of the game, such as whether it's any fun to play, or too long, or aesthetically repulsive.

User experience is at the heart of my continued skepticism about Mansions Of Madness. Since I can read, I know what the theme is. However, after playing the game, I don't know what the game is supposed to be about. Is the main point competition between the keeper and the players? The mechanics imply that's the case, since players have to focus on moving through the house and overcoming obstacles (locks, monsters, darkness etc.) fast enough to resolve the challenge successfully. Other people have argued that it's a storytelling game, in which the mechanics generate a Lovecraftian story. If so, Mansions Of Madness fails, if for no other reason than the win/lose mechanics that are not part of the Call Of Cthulhu role-playing game, which is designed to re-create the experience of the Mythos stories, even if the Keeper has to fudge die rolls or plot developments occasionally to make it work. (To borrow James Carse's terminology, Mansions Of Madness is a finite game, and Call Of Cthulhu is an infinite game.)

User experience should be the basic requirement of any game. As someone who is trying to design his first wargame, I'll say that, as a starting point, the intended user experience does help a lot with the process. Rather than succumbing to the temptation of throwing in mechanics because they might be significant, I'm pruning things that don't contribute to the user experience.

Some designers seem to be very good at user experience. The average Martin Wallace game, for example, has the right feel, whether it's competing in the early days of the automobile industry, competing as the overlords of war-torn Poland, or pulling every devious trick you can imagine in Renaissance Italy. Since not everyone has this knack, I'd make user experience an explicit requirement at the beginning of design, instead of releasing a game that succeeds on all the usual measures (balance, complexity, etc.), but matches the intended experience as much as Microsoft Word resembles the process of writing.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Spain, PC wargames, Barcelona, and other news

As you can tell from this week's podcast, we're back after a short break. I'm totally to blame for missing one of our regular recording windows, but I had very good reasons. First, I was in Barcelona for business, and then stayed for a few more days on vacation. (More on that later.) And, it was the regular end-of-the-quarter mayhem, during which myself and my peers at Forrester Research are pushing hard to finish research reports and consulting projects before the end of the month.

Since I download to my iPad practically everything that looks interesting, I tried out Stitcher, the multi-platform, hybrid Internet radio/podcast app that has been advertising a lot on NPR lately. I registered the I've Been Diced! podcast there, for anyone who switches to that as their preferred app. (I've also been experimenting with iCatcher, which gives you the option of downloading or streaming podcasts to which you subscribe.)

As I mentioned on the podcast this week, I've been learning The Operational Art Of War III. If that sentence sounds as though I'm learning a language instead of a PC-based wargame toolkit, you wouldn't be far from the truth. Once you get a handle on the game, it's a rewarding experience, particularly given the gazillion scenarios available for it. However, learning it is a lot like a night class covering Serbian for beginners.

Maybe I'll write something longer about TOAW, but for now, let me just say that it's harder than it should be to start. No game ever reveals itself completely on the first play, and the part that's often obscure is the step beyond the basic mechanics. You can read the rules and understand how to play Combat Commander, for example, but it will take a couple of games before you can assess how risky your planned attack will be.

That's where I am now, having played the Arracourt scenario several times, switching between the Americans and Germans. I've fought the computer to a draw, and even pulled out a minor victory once. But jumpin' Jehosephat, the interface and documentation did not help.

I hadn't been to Spain, and I feel that I still haven't, at least the part we normally consider to be Spain. Catalonia definitely has its own identity, starting with the Catalan language, which is different enough from Spanish that my high school Spanish lessons did me little good.

We stayed in the center of the old medieval city, the Barri Gòtic. It was very touristy, but heck, we were tourists. If you're a history buff, Barcelona is a fascinating place. Tons of interesting medieval details, and a surprising amount of the original Roman settlement still visible, from a section of the original wall (shown here) to the ruins of the downtown area that you can visit in the bottom level of the City Museum.

Taking a drive up the Costa Brava was a great idea, since we got to see a few other fascinating things. If you're ever in the area, take the time to see Empúries, an amazingly well-preserved ancient town, first settled by the Greeks, and then by the Romans. Both settlements are excavated, and both are chock full of fascinating things, from tiled floors to the water filtration system, from the Roman forum to the Greek jetty.

I strongly recommend taking the time to read about Barcelona, Catalonia, and Spain in general before going. Otherwise, you'll miss a lot. For example, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the residents of Barcelona successfully resisted the Falangist seizure of power. Visiting the Place Sant Jaume, the square in front of the old city hall and police station, is a little different experience when you've heard that's where the local military commander, ordered by his Nationalist superiors to fire on any Republicans, had the field guns loaded with blanks.

There's an element of games in my day job, as a computer industry analyst. Game-like exercises, serious games, are seeing some adoption in software development teams as tools for understanding customers and making better decisions. You can see my slides here, if you're interested at all. (Serious games have applicability outside of software development, but that just happens to be my research coverage.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 18: Twilight Imperium

Ever wanted to play Twilight Imperium? We dedicate this episode to you. Tom, Paul, and Scott give an overview of the game for beginners, with a summary of the core mechanics, tips for beginners, and even a few strategy suggestions. We've finished sessions of Twilight Imperium on a weeknight (really!), so why not you? Plus, the games we've been playing, and a run-down of some notable "great sweep of galactic history" games like Twilight Imperium.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Civil War, day by day, and our perception of history

One of my favorite iPad apps is The Civil War Today, the History Channel's day-by-day accounting of what happened 150 years ago. It's not the typical "This day in history" app, which is usually forgettable. In fact, The Civil War Today is not only memorable, but in its own way, surprisingly profound.

Every day, there's a relatively small amount of information, but very well-selected. There's a top news story, a few photos, the current casualty numbers, a few contemporary maps, a feature story, and excerpts from the lives of the famous (for instance, selections from Lincoln's daily correspondence) and the unknown (for example, John Beauchamp Jones' diary of his life as a Confederate War Department clerk who saw Jefferson Davis on a regular basis).

Day by day, the details accumulate. John Beauchamp Jones marvels at how much paperwork is piling up, in an infant government that just bawled out its secession. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, declares that the president has no right to suspend habeas corpus. General Benjamin Butler declares slaves to be contraband, freeing him from any obligation to return escaped slaves to their former owners.

In other words, the app provides an experience of Civil War history that you don't get from even the best books, a medium in which you look backwards in toto. It's hard for historians to make it seem as though the conclusion is already decided, which is why there's always a brisk interest in any counterfactual history or historical fiction that seems credible.

The Civil War Today is a completely different medium that avoids this problem. Events don't seem terribly connected with each other. Was Butler's controversial "contraband" policy going to create trouble for other Union civilian and military leaders? Once the Union army moved south, would Taney's decision have any effect on Union generals?

At this point in the Civil War, casualties were 57 on the Northern side, and 45 on the Southern. Those numbers make it easier to understand why people on both sides were willing to believe that the war could be shorter and less bloody than it turned out to be. We can see how hard it was, from the minute and scattered details of news stories and casualty numbers and photographs of eager young men, the hungry machine of destruction that both sides were building.

The only other medium that shows the uncertainties of war is wargaming. At the start of the game, you have some idea of how the war might progress (more, certainly, than did the Northern and Southern leaders at the start of the war), but the outcome is anything but predictable. You have some control over events, but a bad die roll can be as damaging as a division that gets lost in the middle of a battle, and a poor hand of event cards can be as confining as the debate between abolitionists and those who wanted just the return of the Southern states to the Union. We need to understand history as viewed forward by the participants as much as viewed backward by the historians.

Monday, May 30, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 17: The enduring appeal of Cosmic Encounter

Cosmic Encounter has been around for decades, with a dedicated fan base. What's the secret behind this boardgame's lasting appeal? Is Scott suffering from a Virus, a Fungus, or an enlarged Macron? Why are there so few games like Cosmic Encounter? During the Games Off The Beaten Track segment, we'll mention a few of those Cosmic-esque, Encounter-ish games.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Barriers to wargame entry

It's the week for good posts about wargaming. Anyone with an interest in wargames -- interested in diving into them, still getting your sea legs, or an old salt -- should read this post on Boardgame Geek. The author has some very thoughtful observations about wargaming's "barriers to entry," written from the perspective of a relatively new player. Some of the points he makes are not what you'd expect, given the received wisdom on this topic. For example, I strongly agree with his point made near the end of the post about relying too much on "gateway games."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Excellent series about War In The East

If you're a wargamer, you should read Bruce Geryk's blog posts about War In The East, the PC Monsterspiel about the Eastern Front in WWII. War In The East isn't cheap – at $80, it's about as expensive as the typical Fantasy Flight game – so you can use Geryk's posts to decide whether it's the game for you. He also uses the occasion to muse about wargaming in general. How important are the details? Do wargames build credible narratives? What should games help you visualize? What assumptions do we make that perhaps we shouldn't?

Monday, May 16, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 16: Electronic versions of boardgames

There's a bumper crop of electronic versions of our favorite board games. The desktop, laptop, mobile device, and browser provide electronic versions aplenty. But which are any good? What makes them good? Do they increase or decrease sales of the physical versions? Should boardgame publishers be cool with other people developing electronic versions of their titles? And will Paul ever get an AI opponent for Advanced Squad Leader? Plus, I recommend a few boardgame-like wargames for the PC. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The choice between production quality and innovation

During the latest I've Been Diced! podcast, we spent a fair amount of time talking about Victory Point Games, a very different kind of company in today's crowded boardgame market. VPG's business model centers around ease of first-time publication: lower the bar of entry for new designers and new designs by keeping costs as low as possible. As a result, VPG violates all the popular assumptions about what makes a good boardgame company, and still they have dedicated fans.

Here's a quick rundown of their heresies:

  • Deliver games in ziploc bags, not boxes.
  • Keep the component quality low, about what I might be able to do with my own laser printer. (In fact, VPG provides scans of many components for customers to print themselves. Click here for an example of why you might do that.)
  • Keep the number of components low. For example, the Napoleonic 20 titles have no more than 20 unit counters per game.
  • Don't sell through the normal retail channels. Forget Thoughthammer, Funagain, and all the online retailers, or the dwindling number of brick-and-mortar stores. VPG sells through their own web site, period.
  • Emphasize solitaire play. A large percentage of VPG titles are solitaire only, and many of the rest have solitaire variants.
  • Keep complexity low. In contrast with the clockwork games that have several interlocking game systems, VPG titles are far leaner.

The result? A lot of very affordable games on cool themes, at a higher than average level of critical success. Even when tough reviewers find flaws within a particular VPG title, they also find a lot to recommend them. (Click here for an example.)

VPG is filling a niche that Metagaming once occupied in the late 70s and early 80s, the micro game company. Astra Titanus, a VPG title, is a modern re-theming of OGRE, one of the first micro games that Metagaming, so the lineage between Metagaming and VPG is pretty direct. Not surprisingly, Metagaming also de-emphasized production quality, with similar results.

To illustrate, let's set the time machine controls back to 1977, the year that Metagaming published OGRE. The people at Metagaming don't know it yet, but OGRE and its sequel, GEV, will continue to be played for the next 25 years. OGRE is a creative leap that might easily fail, a game in which one player has only a single counter on the map. The game could be an exciting struggle between two very different combatants, or a game in which only one side has interesting choices to make.

Not all of Metagaming's first titles will be successes. Warp War, for example, will get some good early buzz, but it will disappear from gaming tables in a couple of years. Rivets looks like a cute game of battling robots, but it will wind up in the scrap heap rather quickly. However, Melee will turn into an enduring favorite that spawns another game, Wizards, that will evolve into a new RPG system, The Fantasy Trip, which will evolve again into GURPS.

Metagaming can afford to take risks with its game portfolio, because the games are relatively cheap to produce. Each microgame comes in a ziplock bag. The customer has to cut out the pieces from the single piece of cardboard that comprises the counter sheet. The graphics on the counters, or in the rulebook, or on the map, are lower than average quality for the hobby. Some of the games that go into these modest packages might turn out to be surprise hits; others that seemed promising may turn out to be flops. At $3 per game (about $10 today, adjusting for inflation), both the publisher and the customer can afford to take these risks.

During the same year, Avalon Hill is enjoying a fantastic run of successful innovation. In 1977, Avalon Hill published Squad Leader, Victory In The Pacific, and Rail Baron. Other titles in Avalon Hill's 1977 catalog won't reach the same status as classics, but the company's rigorous playtesting has led to a pretty good success rate. Avalon Hill may be investing more in components (mounted maps, high-quality box art, etc.), but the games that these components bring to life are, on average, pretty solid.

SPI, the other wargame giant of the hobby in 1977, seems to be doing just as well. (Warning: If you are an older grognard with fond memories of SPI, you may be offended by what I'm about to say.) However, that success is somewhat fleeting. The titles that SPI publishes in 1977 are not going to have the same enduring appeal of OGRE or Squad Leader. There will be noble failures, such as War Of The Ring and A Mighty Fortress. With a few more development cycles, these games might have been classics. Unfortunately, most of SPI's 1977 publications -- Canadian Civil War, Raid!, The Conquerors, StarSoldier -- will turn out to be immediately forgettable. In 25 years, very few will remember them, and no one will be playing them.

But everything in SPI's 1977 catalog looks good out of the box. The company takes on interesting themes. The graphic art elements of these games are top notch. (Tim Kirk's art for War Of The Ring is outstanding.) Every game comes with a counter tray, the 1977 equivalent of the 2011 box insert for easy component storage. If Boardgame Geek had existed in 1977, these games would have received rave "out of the wrapper" reviews. The reviews themselves would have received lots of thumbs up from people eager for first reports about these well-produced games.

The year 1977 in the history of boardgaming has an obvious moral: successful innovation doesn't come for free. The average SPI or Avalon Hill game takes more money to publish than a Metagaming microgame, which makes it more expensive for the individual gamer to buy. The customers of Avalon Hill and SPI come to expect a certain quality of presentation in their games, so these companies have to invest more in graphic design, printing, and distribution. With finite resources, each of these companies has to choose priorities: production quality over number of titles? Number of titles over time spent on design review and playtesting?

Avalon Hill managed to juggle these priorities more successfully than SPI, but both companies dropped the ball repeatedly. Metagaming did too, but their flops, such as Ice War, left customers far less angry than expensive failures like Princess Ryan's Star Marines. (And which does less damage as an introduction to the hobby?)

Let's return to 2011. The point of our trip isn't to say that every company today needs to be like Metagaming. As in any market, there's room for different types of companies, from the specialists (Multiman Publishing) to the generalists (Fantasy Flight Games), from low complexity (Z-Man) to high complexity (GMT), from non-existent production values (Cheapass) to high quality components (Rio Grande).

The entire boardgame hobby ecosystem benefits from having these lower-cost, lower-risk laboratories of innovation like Metagaming and Victory Point Games. Unfortunately, not everyone with a loud opinion on BGG, the main forum for discussion about boardgames, recognizes that fact. Many well-produced games that get high praise from BGGers disappear into obscurity as quickly as Canadian Civil War. Some people reflexively sneer at games that lack the rococo aesthetic of FFG titles. And others don't recognize the trade-off that companies have to make among competing priorities, such as quality of the game design and quality of the game components.

Here's a moment when this choice between production quality and game quality matters. Many people are unhappy that Games Workshop didn't publish more copies of Space Hulk third edition. Space Hulk is a great game, and it's a shame that it's now very expensive to get a copy of any edition. Meanwhile, Victory Point games has a Space Hulk-ish title, Forlorn Hope, that by some accounts is a better game. Rather than bemoan the short print run of Space Hulk, or spend close to $200 on a copy, why not take a chance with Forlorn Hope? Unless your only interest in Space Hulk is the miniatures, you may get a lot more enjoyment out of a much smaller outlay of cash. VPG will put that money into publishing other games you might want to play, many with novel mechanics and interesting themes. And you'll be able to buy several of them for the cost of one copy of Space Hulk.

I've Been Diced! episode 15: Successors is where the love begins

Our main topic is Successors, the 4-player card-driven wargame from GMT. We really like it, but that's just the beginning of the lovefest this episode. We also love Magic Realm, which for most of us finally just clicked. Dave compares Magic Realm to Victor Hugo's novels, and Tom compares it to Super Street Fighter. We also like some new games, such as Fighting Formations: Grossdeutschland Motorized Infantry Division, Astra Titanus, and 51st State. And we even love Paul behind his back! Finally, Tom discusses why we love OGRE, and would love more games like it. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Great news for wargaming and tablet devices

The newly-founded Project Simonsen is working on porting several wargames (Across Five Aprils, RAF, Washington's War, and a few others) to tablet devices. That's great news for wargaming on my iPad, and maybe wargaming in general, if Project Simonsen helps recruit new players to the hobby. At the very least, I will buy every game in their catalog, if they succeed at what they've defined as their mission.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Fighting Formations forming up for fighting

What a great gift from the UPS guy for the weekend. My pre-ordered copy of Fighting Formations: Grossdeutschland Infantry Division was waiting on the doorstep when I stepped out to run an errand. If you don't know why this is an occasion for wargamer nerdgasm, just string these words together:

  • Designer of Combat Commander
  • New game system, moved up to the platoon level
  • Now with tanks
God bless you, GMT Games.

A map site full of historical awesomeness

Click here now. Need further convincing? If you have any interest in history, you'll check out the Conflict History web site, one of the best mash-ups I've ever seen. Pick any date in history, and you'll see the conflicts that were happening around the globe at that moment. Yowza.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

An insane idea for a boardgame?

I'm treading a fine line with this post. I don't want you, Dear Reader, to treat it as if it were a review. As you might know, I have a strict "three plays before you review" rule, and I've played Mansions Of Madness only once. Some of the reviewers for whom I have the most respect have written very laudatory things about Mansions Of Madness, so I'm definitely withholding any real judgment until I've played it more.

That being said, it is fair to talk about what Mansions Of Madness represents, design-wise. It may be the game that didn't need to be made, since it crosses some boundaries that perhaps should be respected. While not everyone would consider games to be an art form, game designers can learn a few things about game genres from artistic genres.

About twenty years ago, Frank Stella argued, in an article in The New Republic (if memory serves), that some aspects of modern art were played out. Once you've challenged the assumptions behind art, what's the point of continuing to challenge them, over and over again? Marcel Duchamps signing a urinal was a profound statement. Signing it a hundred more times would be idiotic.

Yet, we've had a century of artists who keep playing with form, even though the point's already made. Every once in a while, you'll get something new. For example, the movie Exit Through The Gift Shop made a really compelling argument that the greatness of artistic works is really just a question of perception. However, for every Exit Through The Gift Shop, there are hundreds of works of modern art, or arty movies, or movies about modern art, that are just flogging the same point about the arbitrariness of what we think art is.

It's hard to write about art without lapsing into pompous blather. If you lasted this far, I'm sure you're wondering what Frank Stella's opinions about modern art have to do with boardgames. The line between the two is actually pretty short.

Some of the best games are the result of brave designs with form. Up Front!, for example, threw out the map that every wargame is assumed to have. Space Alert replaced the normal definition of a turn, the amount of time in which the player decides to act, with a fixed interval over which the players had no control. Tales Of The Arabian Nights has a scoring system, but the real focus of the game is the stories it generates. Cosmic Encounter threw out the idea that, in a multi-player game, everyone has to start with roughly the same capabilities.

But not every such experiment is a success. Anyone remember Everway? If you don't, here was the premise: forget depending on the usual conventions of a role-playing game, such as having a scenario or a gamemaster. Give people cards with fantasy art, drawn at random, and let them make up their own story. Don't see many people playing Everway these days. Come to think of it, I don't remember seeing anyone playing the game after it was first published in 1995.

Another failed experiment was the Shadowrun giant miniature game, designed to satisfy any action figure fan's desire to set up mock battles, which is almost pointless without supplying your own sound effects (Pew! Pew!). Which, of course, begged the question, "Why do I need help setting up mock battles and shouting Pew! Pew!" Nice action figures, terrible and ultimately pointless game.

Just because you can play with form, doesn't mean that you should. Nowhere is that maxim more visible when people try to replicate one genre in another.

Other than to make a quick buck, there's little reason to try to port the experience of a video game into a movie. If you want to pick up a controller and experience the thrill of jumping over pits, or shooting cyberdemons, or winning a martial arts bout, you'd play Super Mario Brothers, or Doom, or Street Fighter. Watching someone else play one of those games is nowhere near as satisfying as playing it yourself.

Nevertheless, Hollywood producers keep trying to make a successful video game-based movie. Here's a list from Wikipedia of movies based on video game franchises, including Super Mario Brothers, Doom, and Street Fighter. The one word reviews for these movies range from so boring that you couldn't watch them, even if you had nothing else to do on a six hour plane ride (Final Fantasy), to so excruciatingly stupid that you can't even make fun of them (Doom). Street Fighter comes close to being unintentionally funny in an MST3K-like way, but it's instantly depressing when you realize that you're watching Raul Julia's last performance.

And here's where the whole idea behind Mansions Of Madness seems ill-conceived. Certainly, there are some role-playing genres that can be translated into a board game. The iconic D&D dungeon crawl already feels like a commando mission, so it's not hard to turn a D&D session into a tactical boardgame. That's the direction that Wizards of the Coast already took D&D in its fourth edition, which may have offended many RPG players, but clearly has reached some market of people willing to buy all the fourth edition materials.

Because of the nature of the story in a fantasy RPG like D&D, it's not hard to translate the role-playing experience into a boardgame experience. In both cases, combat is the central mechanic of the game. Hard-fought battles between heroes and monsters, in which the heroes have a pretty good chance of winning, is the motif in both cases. While you might not like a particular D&D-like boardgame, such as Castle Ravenloft, you might be perfectly happy with another, such as Descent. Your choice depends on which aspects of the combat-heavy D&D experience you enjoy, and how well the designer provides them.

But that's not the type of story that the Call Of Cthulhu RPG tells.

The tropes of the Cthulhu Mythos are so familiar, so frequently repeated across hundreds of stories, that they're practically cliche. Doomed protagonist? Check. Humanity dwarfed by cosmic horrors? Check. Sanity-shattering events? Check. Alien beings with lots of pseudopods and/or tentacles? Check.

Despite these often-repeated elements, the Cthulhu Mythos somehow avoids turning into a cliche. While it certainly helps that authors can transplant the Mythos into other settings than New England in the 1920s, that's clearly not the only reason for the Mythos' enduring appeal. Another important reason is that the Mythos is largely incomplete.

The gaps take two forms. The first isn't really relevant to Mansions Of Madness, but I'll mention it anyway. Lovecraft hinted at a larger, more horrible universe than humans realized. Emphasis on hinted. We never really knew much about the Great Old Ones, why they want to destroy our world when the stars are right, or even how many of them existed. When August Derleth tried to systematize the Cthulhu Mythos, he failed spectacularly, because the Mythos needed to remain unsystematized for generations of future authors to make new contributions to this enduring mini-genre.

The other gap, the scant information about any individual Mythos creature, is important for a different reason: keeping the stories scary. While Mythos fans might have the entire menagerie of Lovecraftian creatures memorized, they really have very scant information about the Mi-Go, shoggoths, or shantaks. Lovecraft's own descriptions are more suggestive, such as this description of the byakhee:
There flapped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things ... not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor decomposed human beings, but something I cannot and must not recall.
Of course, some very talented artists have tried to depict byakhee, based on those very few words. But which is more disturbing, the verbal description, which suggests something more horrible than words can capture, or even the best painting or sketch of a byakhee?

Interestingly, the least memorable of Lovecraft's own creatures was Wilbur Whateley. Despite being the offspring of Azathoth, I can't remember another instance of the bastard offspring of a Great Old One and humans, across countless Mythos stories. Poor Wilbur is a lot less interesting because Lovecraft explained him too much, leaving too little to the imagination:

The thing that lay half-bent on its side in a foetid pool of greenish-yellow ichor and tarry stickiness was almost nine feet tall, and the dog had torn off all the clothing and some of the skin. It was not quite dead, but twitched silently and spasmodically while its chest heaved in monstrous unison with the mad piping of the expectant whippoorwills outside. Bits of shoe-leather and fragments of apparel were scattered about the room, and just inside the window an empty canvas sack lay where it had evidently been thrown. Near the central desk a revolver had fallen, a dented but undischarged cartridge later explaining why it had not been fired. The thing itself, however, crowded out all other images at the time. It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualised by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions. It was partly human, beyond a doubt, with very man-like hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateleys upon it. But the torso and lower parts of the body were teratologically fabulous, so that only generous clothing could ever have enabled it to walk on earth unchallenged or uneradicated.

Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest, where the dog’s rending paws still rested watchfully, had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply. Their arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system. On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, and with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat. The limbs, save for their black fur, roughly resembled the hind legs of prehistoric earth’s giant saurians; and terminated in ridgy-veined pads that were neither hooves nor claws. When the thing breathed, its tail and tentacles rhythmically changed colour, as if from some circulatory cause normal to the non-human side of its ancestry. In the tentacles this was observable as a deepening of the greenish tinge, whilst in the tail it was manifest as a yellowish appearance which alternated with a sickly greyish-white in the spaces between the purple rings. Of genuine blood there was none; only the foetid greenish-yellow ichor which trickled along the painted floor beyond the radius of the stickiness, and left a curious discolouration behind it.
Yeesh, that's almost as long as this blog post.

For these reasons, I wonder why many people are raving (no, not in that way) about the Mansions Of Madness miniatures. While I'm not a huge fan of two-dimensional depictions of the Mythos menagerie, I'm really turned off by three-dimensional ones. At least with 2D images, you can get a little crazy with what you're depicting. In 3D, you're stuck with what's not only possible, but reasonable to manufacture as a plastic miniature. The shoggoth in Mansions Of Madness looks more like a potato angry for being left out in the sun too long than an indescribable horror, and that might be the best anyone can do with a miniature.

By the way, the principle of leaving a lot to the imagination is hardly unique to Lovecraft. Some of the best horror movies don't show much of the monster, if anything. In the first Alien movie, we never get a really good look at the creature. (In fact, we're so ignorant of its anatomy that we're surprised as Ripley is when it uncoils from its hiding place in the shuttle.) The monster in Curse of the Demon was pretty frightening until the very end of the movie, when the filmmakers decided to show it. Ditto for the monster in Forbidden Planet. The original Cat People was a very disturbing story, without ever showing Simone Simon turning into a panther, or even seeing the panther at all except for a couple of scenes.

So, I'm not thrilled with the miniatures. Coulda done without 'em. But you might make a similar complaint about Arkham Horror, which has way more pictures of Mythos creatures than Mansions Of Madness ever will, even after the inevitable expansions. But there's one key difference between those two games: Arkham Horror is not trying to be the boardgame equivalent of the Call Of Cthulhu role-playing game.

From its first edition onwards, Call Of Cthulhu has always stood apart from most other RPGs (except, perhaps, for other horror RPGs, many of which have tried to capture what made CoC great). Our beloved memories of a game like D&D usually center on epic battles, fought at high risk for high stakes, in which Our Heroes usually emerge victorious. The memorable moments in Call Of Cthulhu involve people dying in horrible ways (dissolving into piles of goo, pulled beneath the waves, swallowed whole by an amorphous horror, etc.), or things going catastrophically wrong (framed by cultists, allowed a major villain to escape, went insane at an extremely inopportune moment, etc.).

While the game is designed to deliver these outcomes, Call Of Cthulhu also benefits from the unbounded nature of role-playing games. There is no winning or losing, though there may be outcomes that are more desirable than others. Players will do the darndest things, often making horribly bad decisions or dice rolls, or pulling out brilliant improvisations at a critical moment. If the campaign is going in a bad direction, the GM can make adjustments before running the next session.

In fact, "campaign" is another way of saying that CoC is, to use James Carse's term, an infinite game. The point of the game, as is the case with RPGs in general, is continuing to play the game. While the appeal of continued play might take different forms, with different RPGs, in the case of CoC, it's the delicious anticipation of what will happen next. While CoC usually falls under the category of horror RPGs, suspense plays just as great a role in CoC.

The contrast with Mansions Of Madness is pretty clear. While MoM tries to be a story-telling game, it's a consummately finite game. You play a scenario, and then you're done. You either win or lose. There might be story-telling elements available in the game, in the form of flavor text or clues, but you can easily lose track of these elements, especially since the game keeps you focused on its mechanics, such as finding clues and solving puzzles. In CoC, the story-telling is more important than the mechanics.

While MoM begs this comparison, Arkham Horror does not, because Arkham Horror is not trying to be Call Of Cthulhu in a box. It's clear from the very beginning that the meaning of AH is not the same as CoC, even though the theme is the same. (In fact, AH might be one of the best illustrations of the difference between theme and meaning,) The theme of both CoC and AH is the Cthulhu Mythos. The meaning of AH, the experience or mechanics that the game mechanics create, is a race against time that the players can easily lose. That's not the meaning of CoC in general (though individual sessions might have that motif). AH never tries to be frightening, or horrifying, or morally disturbing.

To achieve its aims, AH does not need to be open-ended. In fact, fudging is equivalent to cheating. Many of the principles of good RPGs, as discussed in this excellent presentation, would only serve to make an already lengthy game even longer, perhaps to an intolerable degree. (So forget about creating sandboxes or showmanship.) The final bit of advice, "Enable risk-taking," is completely irrelevant, since winning AH depends on minimizing risks.

In contrast, any game that tries to be "CoC in a box" must heed these principles of running a good RPG. Which, more or less, means that not being an RPG is a bit of a problem. Since CoC is all about storytelling, in which the worst outcomes (or the risk of them) are sometimes the most desirable, it's far less suited to translation into a boardgame than D&D and many other types of RPG.

And now we return to our discussion of art. In modern art, or game design, it might be interesting for the artist or designer to experiment with form. However, not every experiment, including ones that might be successful from a strictly technical perspective, are necessarily interesting or even meaningful for the audience.

In one of the most memorable sessions of CoC with my long-lost game group, I found myself arguing on one side of a moral dilemma with another player character. A typical Unspeakable Creature That Should Not Be was rampaging through an insane asylum, located on a lonely, storm-swept island where we were all stranded. Faced with the likelihood that we were all going to die, my PC took a strictly utilitarian view: I have a spell that will summon another creature, under my control, which might defeat the one about to kill us. Unfortunately, the spell requires a human sacrifice. But we're all going to die, including that senile octagenarian in the wheelchair over there. So...The other PC had a much, much different view. Sure, we were all going to die, but once you start trafficking with the Great Old Ones, even worse things than death might result.

That's the kind of moment that makes CoC a fantastic RPG. While I might have lost the ability to sustain the commitment needed for a regular RPG group, I still remember our CoC sessions with great fondness. That's an experience, and a memory, that I fear MoM can never create.

[P.S. For a similarly skeptical view of Mansions Of Madness, pass through this interdimensional portal to Chris Farrell's blog.]

Friday, March 18, 2011

I've Been Diced: episode 14: Mansions Of Madness

It's a mansion! A maaaaan-shuuuuuun!

This episode, we give an introduction to FFG's new Cthulhu Mythos-based boardgame, Mansions Of Madness. Then, after playing it, we give our first impressions. No, R'lyeh, we do. Plus, I put in a quick word for a few other Lovecraftian boardgames off the beaten path.  And finally, a recent review of GMT's The Spanish Civil War gets my wargaming goat. You don't want to get that particular goat with a thousand young irked with you, believe me. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Friday, March 11, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 13: Guilty pleasure board games

Confession is good for the soul, they say. Well, you might have second thoughts after you hear us reveal our guilty pleasure board games. Plus, this week's game off the beaten path is Caesar's Gallic Wars. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Monday, March 7, 2011

Another discussion of randomness

A recent episode of Three Moves Ahead took on my latest favorite topic, the role of randomness in games. Three Moves Ahead occasionally delves into boardgames, though its real bailiwick is computer strategy games. However, if you start talking about randomness, it's hard not to focus on boardgames, since they expose the random elements in ways that computer games don't. Or, as the panel in this podcast explore, maybe randomness plays a more important role in a game like Successors or Command & Colours: Ancients than it does in Starcraft? A great discussion, definitely worth a listen.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Randomness in boardgames: simulation

[For other posts in this series, click here, here, and here.]

When I started this series of blog posts, I deliberately avoided talking about the most obvious reason for including random elements in a game. For a game to be a credible simulation of a situation, even if completely fictional (for example, elves and orcs playing jai alai), it needs randomness. For reasons that I don't fully fathom, this argument for randomness sometimes leads into very heated discussions, so I thought I'd first tackle the less controversial but no less important reasons for randomness in boardgames. But there's no avoiding the necessity of randomness in anything that resembles reality.

No human activity is immune from having Dame Fortune appear unexpectedly to ruin your plans. Some situations may introduce fewer random elements than others: for example, you'll face fewer problems crossing the street than traveling to Vladivostok.You might stumble crossing the street, which is unfortunate. Traveling to Vladivostok, you might lose your passport, bad weather might cancel your flight, a pickpocket might steal your wallet, and no end of other mishaps might occur, orders of magnitude more than might happen crossing the street.

Nowhere can you see the importance of randomness in simulations than in wargames. There is a lot of randomness in real-world combat, so it's hard to suspend disbelief when playing a completely deterministic wargame. Designers may choose to simulate different random elements, even when they are depicting the same historical event. If you play a Gettysburg wargame that users a chit pull system (for example, Across Five Aprils), you're not certain when a particular general will get his troops moving. Another Gettysburg game, such as Gettysburg: Badges of Courage, might give the surrogate Meade or Lee more control over when corps commanders order their troops to move or fight.

Every wargame designer imposes some upper limit on the amount of randomness in a game, and where to include it. Many designers are hesitant to include too many random elements in the command and control aspects of the game, even though the unpredictability of C3I is a major issue in real-world conflicts. After all, one of the most famous anecdotes about the battle of Gettysburg is Ewell's failure to take Cemetery Ridge, despite Lee's direct (but vague) order to do so. Whatever side you take on Ewell's hotly-debated decision, the issue boils down to one of C3I.

The importance of randomness in simulations goes beyond the narrative of a particular battle. (What if Ewell had advanced on Cemetery Hill? What if McClellan hadn't received a copy of Lee's Special Order 191, wrapped around a bundle of cigars?) Uncertainty shapes how military organizations structure themselves, and how they operate. If randomness is important for the narrative, it's also important for how you depict the major characters and their actions.

If you're not a military history buff, you might not understand why historians stress divisions over other levels of organization in accounts of WWII battles. In a book or documentary, you'll more likely hear about the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne division, not the 2nd Brigade of the 101st. The uncertainties of command and control are a major reason for why divisions were the atomic unit of battle for the US army in World War II. Every army is a bureaucracy, with the same limitations on the amount of flexibility you can allow into the organization without introducing too much chaos.

The Army decided to make the division the smallest unit "capable of independent operations." Or, to put it another way, since the Army wanted to expect commanders at some level of the hierarchy to take the initiative, it decided to grant that latitude to the divisional commander. When assembling for battle, the Army could then attach or detach lower-level units (artillery, armor, etc.) to the division to modify its combat power. This model also made the lines of accountability clear more clear for success and failure on the battlefield, despite the tendency of junior and senior commanders to point fingers at each other.

Uncertainty shapes the way in which commanders make their plans. The more complex the plan, the more points at which it can break down. A chief defect of Yamamoto's plan for the invasion of Midway, for example, is his decision to break the fleet into four separate task forces. The probability that all four task forces arriving on station, as planned, was extremely low, leading many later commentators (including some Japanese admirals) to highlight  Japanese overconfidence (or "victory disease"). Had Yamamoto not scattered his ships and planes in this fashion, the Japanese fleet would have been better deployed to provide mutual protection while simultaneously executing strikes against the US fleet and Midway island.

How does a wargame simulate the risks that complex plans introduce? Frankly, most of them don't. You rarely see the importance of planning in actual combat, since units always take orders, they never get lost, and they don't encounter other mishaps when moving from point A to B. Wargames that do include the planning element, such as Fields Of Fire and the Tactical Combat Series, stand out starkly from the hundreds of other wargames that omit this feature.

Designers have some justification for not introducing too much randomness into the most basic tasks in a wargame, such as moving units around the map. Many of their customers complain loudly when a game doesn't allow this kind of unrealistic control over the battlefield, so designers are just responding to their market. To keep the experience of playing a wargame credible, you need to keep some element of randomness somewhere -- if not in the C3I aspects of the game, then in the combat results mechanics, or the timing of unit activation, or something else.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 12: High Frontier

High Frontier is an ambitious game about the exploration and exploitation of the solar system. This episode, we outline the rules of the basic game for new players, and we give a few initial thoughts about the game. Plus, our game off the beaten track looks at space as a much less inviting place. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hating the haters of "hex and counter" wargames

Every once in a while, you'll see a forum post, blog entry, or other piece of content that takes disparages traditional "hex and counter" wargames. While I can forgive a little bit of adolescent arrogance ("These are a new generation of wargames, old man!"), at some point you have to call BS on exaggerations or falsehoods. Like, say, the false assumption that newer wargame formats can't co-exist with the older types.

Clearly, wargame design needed some shaking up. When I was a subscriber to Strategy & Tactics, I received in every issue yet another treatment of an historical event, always jammed into the same medium of hexes, combat result tables (CRTs), zones of control, and counters depicting combat and movement ratings. Innovation was pretty limited: for example, the "sticky" zones of control in Panzergruppe Guderian inspired far more conversation and controversy than they probably deserved.

Impatience with this very constricted approach started a very long time ago. Courtney Allen, for example, was responsible for two of the biggest divergences from traditional "hex and counter" designs. (It's probably more accurate to call them "hex and CRT" games, but the "hex and counter" moniker is already too well-established to dispute it.) Storm Over Arnhem (1981) shifted to an area movement model, introduced a combat system that did not rely on a CRT, and added a novel activation system that gave a better feel for the ebb and flow of combat. Up Front! (1983) did away with a map altogether, made a deck of cards the mechanism for giving orders, and replaced die rolls with the same deck of cards. Since Avalon Hill marketed Up Front! as "the Squad Leader card game," this radically new design outraged many Squad Leader fans who expected something closer to the boardgame experience.

Courtney Allen is hardly the only designer to have made the move away from the original "hex and counter" paradigm. However, he does show, with just one notable example, of how the shift away from the old paradigm started a lot earlier than some "hex and counter" critics realize.

None of these designers thought that they were abandoning maps with hexes, or combat resolution systems that depended on comparing a die roll to a chart, or counters that contained combat and movement ratings. We The People, for example, created the "card-driven game" mechanics that are now a pillar of modern wargame design. We The People also used a point-to-point map of the American colonies, instead of hex grid, and it replaced die rolling with a combat deck.

We The People was a breakthrough game, but I'm afraid that some observers misread what its innovations meant for the hobby. After We The People, Mark Herman designed games with hex-based maps (Empire Of The Rising Sun), CRTs (Washington's War), and turns that didn't depend on card plays (the continuing Great Battles Of History series, in ongoing collaboration with Richard Berg).

The wargame designers who invented card-driven turns, abandoned hex grids, replaced counters with blocks, or made other important innovations did not think that they were invalidating the old conventions of wargames. Quite the opposite: they felt that they were expanding the palette of design options, not switching to a new but equally limited range of options.

To make this point, I'm including two maps from recent games about the Spanish Civil War. Crusade & Revolution's map is point-based; The Spanish Civil War's map is a traditional hex grid. In no way is one map choice better than the other. The conclusion: Both are maps of Spain. The Spanish Civil War does a fine job of depicting the conflict with its "old school" mechanics. (See this video review for details.) There's no reason to turn up your nose at it, just because its map doesn't look like Paths Of Glory's.

In fact, the "hex and counter" paradigm may be making a bit of a comeback. In many cases, a hex-grid map is a better way to depict geography, or at least an equally good one. For instance, hexes can simplify the task of depicting the area of operations for air power at the operational and strategic level. A CRT can eliminate some of the weirder results that "buckets of dice" mechanics can generate. We're seeing the plus sides of hex grids and CRTs in games like The Spanish Civil War, Corp Command: TotenSonntag, the popular OCS and SCS series, and countless other titles.

So, Junior, before you slam the old order too hard, remember that you may grow up to become the very thing you're now disparaging. That's OK, since recognizing false dichotomies for what they are is a sure sign of maturity.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why AARs and session reports are more valuable than reviews

[A recent post at Flash of Steel kicked off my thinking on this topic. Click here to read that post.]

When it was still in business, the granddaddy of wargame companies, Avalon Hill, published a magazine covering its games, The General. Every issue had a standard array of content, including previews of new games, strategy articles about existing ones, and "series replays," detailed after-action reports (AARs) that might cover old or new titles. You'll sometimes hear old guard wargamers use the term "house organ" to describe The General. I cringe at that phrase, because it sounds as though The General was just a PR outlet for Avalon Hill. In truth, The General was integral to Avalon Hill's business, not just an appendage.

In the last years of Avalon Hill, the company experimented briefly with articles in The General covering games from other publishers. The reader response was mixed, with a strong tilt towards rejecting this idea. Most readers wanted to read about Avalon Hill games in The General, even if they were interested in other companies' wargames.

At the root of this rejection was the relationship between Avalon Hill and its customers. Avalon Hill had a wide portfolio of high-quality games. Even if an individual wargamer didn't want to buy everything in the Avalon Hill catalog, these choices had more to do with personal preference than game quality. Napoleonics fans might have little interest in Squad Leader. Fans of tactical wargames like Squad Leader might have zero interest in grand strategic games like Third Reich. Die-hard monster gamers might be bored with a simple game like Diplomacy, and Diplomacy fans might shudder at the idea of playing a monster like Empires In Arms.

Avalon Hill made these decisions easy for its customers, and earned their loyalty, in two ways. First, they had a reliable track record of publishing, on average, high-quality games. Sure, there were duds like Amoeba Wars, but by and large, you got your money's worth with their games.

The second benefit of being an Avalon Hill customer, transparency, returns us to The General and the series replay articles. If The General published no other types of articles than series replays, this content alone would have increased sales and customer loyalty in the following ways:

  • See/try/buy. A series replay gave you insight into a game that no box cover, marketing blurb, or even a review could ever provide. You saw what it would be like to play the game before you made a purchase, critical information that unfortunately almost no game company provides today. In my day job, I've written a lot about the way in which software as a service (SaaS) has changed they way customers expect to evaluate, purchase, and adopt software, from free applications like Google Apps, to expensive systems like NetSuite's ERP financial applications. You should be able to get some idea of what it's like to use the product before buying it, a marketing tool that Avalon Hill used decades ago.
  • Greater odds of adoption. I'm using another term, adoption, that appears a lot in my research about the technology industry. It's actually a word that comes from research on innovation in general, not just iPads and financial software. Your willingness to buy something depends, to a great extent, on your expectations that you'll be able to use it. Technology buyers have learned to be wary before diving into a purchase, because they've seen expensive products sit on the shelf unused. In contrast, the person buying a new Avalon Hill wargame knew that, even if the rulebook proved to be dense, dry, and confusing (the infamous Greenwood syndrome), the series replay articles, among other types of supporting content in The General, increased the ease of learning, and therefore eventually playing (or adopting), the game.
  • Greater odds of realizing long-term value. Most people who buy a game want to be able to play it, if not expertly, at least moderately well. The series replay articles provided commentary on the game that not only taught the game mechanics, but basic strategies for first-time players. This information increased the long term value of the game in two ways: (1) shortening the time to begin playing the game at a deeper level, which not all wargamers are patient enough to discover on their own, and (2) illustrating how the game might have deeper levels worth learning.

I'm not sure why game companies today have not learned this lesson. There are exceptions, such as GMT, which recently started recording demos of their games. GMT is certainly an exception, however, in a market awash with orders of magnitude more games than Avalon Hill could ever have published.

A different kind of gaming hobby, computer gaming, has learned this lesson. The most obvious example of a game with useful AARs is Starcraft 2, supported by hundreds of recorded games. A complex game, Europa Universalis III, gets a major boost from the AARs in its fan forums. One of my favorite new blog discoveries, Blunt Force Gamer, has some very interesting AARs from computer wargames.

All of this content increases the odds of anyone playing Starcraft, or taking a chance on buying a little-known game like Time of Fury. This content is way, way more valuable than the "right out of the plastic" or "played it once, now I have an opinion" reviews on Boardgame Geek. If I were a game publisher, I'd be a lot happier if someone posted a good session report than any of these kinds of momentary boosterism that spike right after a game is published, then drop off quickly. (See the latest episode of the I've Been Diced! podcast for more on this topic.) AARs build a longer-term following for games -- and, as The General showed, game companies.

Monday, February 7, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 11: How many sessions before judgment?

Sure, there are games you love at first sight, or hate on arrival. But most games aren't like that, and often, these strong first impressions are wrong. How many sessions of a game should you play before rendering judgment? Plus, a tactical wargame by the designer of Squad Leader that deserves another look. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Historical movies should be about history

I have a pet peeve that extends to both boardgames and movies: If something attempts to depict history, then it should make every effort to be faithful to history. (It's the popular culture version of the maxim, "If you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna.") While some trimming of relevant facts is always necessary to cram the full story into a reasonable span of time for a film or boardgame, the author or designer should not insert deliberate distortions.

Does that sound unreasonable to you? History is intrinsically interesting, so you don't have to work to hard to hook your audience into the story. For instance, I just finished an excellent book about the German-Turkish effort to mess with the British in the Near East during WWI, Like Hidden Fire, which seemed to have the source material for at least a couple of really, really interesting screenplays. Espionage! War! Epic treks! Betrayal! Revolution!

However, for reasons I can't fathom, every time someone points out an inaccuracy in a movie allegedly about real events, some person feels obliged to point out that, "It's just a movie." You hear this rebuttal less among boardgamers, and even less among wargamers (a.k.a. historical conflict simulation gamers). Everyone knows that a game can't be a perfect model of historical events, nor should it be. The whole point is to create some kind of alternate history, within credible parameters. If you play For The People, and the Confederacy exhausts the political will of the Union, you're not dissatisfied with the result. If you play a strategic WWII game along the lines of Europe Engulfed, and Poland conquers Germany on turn one, there's something seriously wrong with that design.

Why should movies be any different? If you write the screenplay for a movie with the budget of, say, Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbor, chances are that you're being paid a fair amount of money for that privilege. Why is the studio OK with you chucking historical veracity out the window, because it's a wee bit harder to check the facts than make up stuff?

The usual argument, which I find wholly unconvincing, is that mangling history is necessary to make a story dramatically interesting. If you're one of those people, I urge you to read one of the following books: Company Commander, by Charles MacDonald; Blood And Thunder, by Hampton Sides; or The Book of Honor, by Ted Gup.

All three books are great reads, without the author mucking around with the facts to make a more interesting story. Why then should a screenplay be any different? From any of these three books, you can extract an intensely dramatic narrative that centers on a specific main character, which seems like the raw material for a great movie.

If you doubt that it's possible to make a movie that's faithful to history, go watch Glory. The minor inaccuracies (for example, Frederick Douglass looks much older in the movie than he was in 1863) are so few, and so inconsequential, that you're definitely nit-picking to complain about them. The rest of the movie gets all the important facts right. In contrast, Braveheart gets many of the important facts about William Wallace's revolt completely wrong, from the battle scenes to the main characters. Heck, the real William Wallace wasn't even a commoner, as depicted in the movie, but a minor noble. That's not exactly a minor detail in a film that depicts the revolt as the little guy taking on The Man.(It's interesting to hear how, in Scotland, many people loathe Braveheart for its inaccuracies, to the point of angrily defacing a Braveheart-inspired statue.)

Could you make an alternate movie about William Wallace that would still be interesting to a general movie audience? Most definitely. Gibson's distortions of history have more to do with his own hatred of the British (also visible in The Patriot) than the rules of good screenwriting.

There is nothing about movies as a medium that requires historical distortion. The problem isn't the amount of content, unless it's impossible for someone to condense an important historical event, such as the battle of Antietam, into a magazine article. The problem isn't the people who are interested in the film's depiction of history, because they're in the theater because of their interest in history. The problem isn't the need to pander to people who need a love interest or a chase scene to keep their attention focused on a movie, or else The King's Speech wouldn't be as popular among movie-goers as it is. Whatever details you choose to leave in or out, just tell the damn story.

So what does this have to do with games? In today's boardgame market, there's an attitude about entry-level games that I detest. Below a certain level of details, it's very difficult for any game to be a good simulation. I'm not bothered by Memoir '44 for this reason. When you crank up the complexity a notch or two, you have the opportunity to include the details that matter. If you decide not to take that opportunity, you're doing a disservice to the people who buy games because of their interest in history.

A prime offender is Tide Of Iron. The game has plenty of fans, many of whom have some interest in the particulars of WWII history. While you might say that it's historical enough for your tastes, it's a different matter to defend Tide of Iron on the grounds that it's really a game about WWII as seen on TV (as if it's OK for TV or movies to mangle history needlessly).

When I reviewed Tide of Iron on BGG, I tried to make a very simple point: given that Tide of Iron isn't a cheap game, the game focuses way too much on its components, at the expense of what it could have done to  include a few details that might have been interesting to WWII buffs. For the cost of all the plastic figures in the box, I might be able to buy an entire game that's a better low-complexity simulation of WWII, and just as enjoyable to play. The time that players must spend on stuffing plastic army men into bases might be spent on historical details that matter, such as the simple and clever ways in which games like Combat Commander and Squad Leader model the importance of leadership on the battlefield.

I'm still mystified why some of the people who commented on the review seemed to miss my point. Maybe I made it poorly, but at the same time, I definitely don't agree with the "WWII as seen on TV" defense. Plastic figures in Tide of Iron are a lot like the gratuitous love interest plots inserted into old movies like Crash Dive and Hellcats of the Pacific: largely irrelevant for someone who's interested in the topic. I came for WWII, not the smooching, thank you very much.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

BGG is really the hub of the boardgame community

It might not surprise you to hear that Boardgame Geek is the hub of the boardgame community. What is surprising is how central BGG is to the online boardgame world. It's also worth pondering why BGG has this dominantly central role, both for the boardgame hobby and anyone who wants to build online communities around other topics.

In my day job, I've been working with a Silicon Valley start-up, eCairn, which provides a tool for mapping online communities. You feed in some information about the type of community you want to map (biotech, cloud computing, "mommy bloggers," film fans, etc.), and they chart the connections among members of this community.

The proof, in this case, is in the picture: among other kinds of output, eCairn provides a social networking diagram of the community. Normally, the community breaks down into clusters around particular topics or especially influential sites. For example, while software developers might be interested in a lot of topics, social media sites about software development clump together around open source, Agile development, user experience (UX), and other topics. (Click the thumbnail to the right if you want to see the bigger version of the network diagram for that community.) If you're part of the Agile sub-community, you might be one of many people who link to Alistair Cockburn's personal site, since he's a well known and highly respected Agile thinker and practitioner.

Communities vary in their "network topology." Some may cluster more, on average, around influential people. Others don't. Some may have lots of clusters of sub-communities, while others may only have two or three. But it's rare to see a community in which one site is truly central. The boardgame community is that exception.

Shown here is the network topology for the boardgame community that eCairn's tool generated, with BGG highlighted in the center. I deliberately added a few blogs and community sites at the fringes, just to show how these exceptions define the rule of BGG's centrality. For example, Rock, Paper, Shotgun occasionally mentions boardgames, but the site is really about computer and console games. Unlike the software development community, and practically every other community out there, social media around boardgames do not break down into sub-communities. Instead of clusters around wargames, Eurogames, or other genres, there are just sites that link to a few others, but nearly all of them point back to BGG.

"Degrees of separation" shapes network topology. What I've shown you so far is a picture of the boardgame community, including up to three degrees of separation among sites. Normally, when communities break down into clusters, ratcheting down the connections leads to a much different landscape. The clusters become more distinct, and the threads connecting them shrink. If, for example, I'm a Java developer, I might link to a person who links to a person who's a Microsoft .Net developer, but you won't see that connection at all if I limit the picture to one degree of separation.

As you limit the number of connections among boardgame sites, the picture does not change significantly. At two degrees of separation, you lose some of the connections among smaller sites, but BGG remains central. That's because a lot of sites link directly to BGG, so it's always a hub of the boardgame community, no matter how many degrees of separation you include.Shown to the right is the networking diagram at only two degrees of separation, with BGG still at the center.

The only thing this type of diagram lacks is the quality of connections. Does someone mention another site in passing, or are they linking to it on a daily basis? This information exists in a separate report, and once again, BGG appears central. People talk about BGG a lot, and link to content on it at a much higher rate than to other sites.

The network diagram is equally interesting for what doesn't appear in it. For example, there are plenty of sites about wargames, but Consimworld, a community site dedicated to wargames, isn't a hub like BGG. Consimworld antedates BGG, and it has a very active community within the confines of its site. However, it doesn't appear to have a larger presence outside its own boundaries.

Here's my seat-of-the-pants analysis of why that's the case:

  • Usability. I've heard people defend CW's usability, and frankly, I'm not convinced. BGG organizes content in a clear way, including discussion threads. CW packs all discussions about a particular game, or game company, or type of game into one continuous thread, often containing thousands of posts. Consequently, CW doesn't attract new users as readily as BGG. 
  • Linkability. CW's amorphous structure makes it difficult to link to any content in it. Almost by definition, therefore, you won't find the same network of connections between it and other sites.
  • Insularity. CW's value depends on how much you're willing to invest in using the site on a regular basis. While BGG may have its share of trolls (see practically any negative review of a game published by Fantasy Flight), the structure of CW makes it unattractive to new or casual users, even when everyone is being nice. There's a wee bit of cliquishness that creeps into discussions there, too. (Something that, several years ago, made me stop following the ASL forum on CW.)
  • User-generated content. BGG is not only a place for discussions, but also for user-generated content about boardgames. They're easy to spot, right there in the files section, where you can take your pick of player aids, rules summaries, tutorials, add-ons, and other valuable content that other BGG users have uploaded. CW doesn't serve that function.

I know that fans of CW will take issue with my characterization of the site, but I'm hardly the only person to have this reaction to CW. In fact, the defenders of CW almost make the very point that the critics sometimes make: If you're willing to invest the time hanging around the site, you'll probably get some value out of it. However, BGG rewards both casual and dedicated users.

Covering the spread of users is important, if you want your site to increase in prominence. In my day job, we've done a lot of work at Forrester Research on the different ways in which people use social media, for both personal and business reasons. Some people are pre-disposed to be "joiners," who get big psychic or career benefits from connecting to other people and hanging around on the same electronic street corner together. Others who may be voracious consumers of social media, or producers of social media content, aren't necessarily joiners.

You don't have to be a joiner to create a sense of investment in a social media site like BGG or CW. People normally treat blogs, community sites, and social networking sites as a framework for discussions. However, they're also a forum for both creating and consuming other things of value. While usability issues certainly impair CW, this sense of investment is another reason why BGG has been the more successful site. CW is like a local bar, where you have to get to know the regulars to strike up an interesting conversation. BGG is more like a flea market, where you can both offer and receive items of value, that also has an area for eating, drinking, and conversation in the middle of it. And because it appears more open, people who are not there at the moment are more willing to steer someone in its direction.

Of course, the regulars at CW feel as though the site is a success -- which is true, in the very compartmentalized model of community on which CW is based. However, CW is never going to be a hub for the larger boardgaming community, or even the larger wargaming community, in the way that BGG is.